Coercive abuse, care cases and refuges: The last week in family law

President Obama has signed the instrument of ratification of the USA to the 2007 Hague Child Support and Maintenance Convention. The object of the Convention is to ensure the effective international recovery of child support and other forms of family maintenance. Until now the only signatories to the Convention were EU Members States, Norway, Albania, Ukraine and Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is understood that many other countries around the world have been considering joining, but were waiting for the USA. It is hoped that the signing of the Convention by the USA will encourage those countries to enter into the Convention.

A Freedom of Information (‘FoI’) request has disclosed that the police are failing to use a new law against coercive domestic abuse. Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015, which came into force on the 29th of December last, made coercive and controlling behaviour in an intimate or family relationship a criminal offence. However the FoI request showed that police forces across England and Wales used section 76 just 62 times between its introduction and June this year. Eight out of 22 police forces in England and Wales have not charged a single person with the offence, and nine forces have made two or fewer charges. Commenting on the figures Lucy Hastings, a director at the independent charity Victim Support, said: “These findings demonstrate that there is still some way to go in improving the support provided to victims and witnesses, before they will be getting the information they need and the respect they deserve. Our research tells us that proper communication between the police and victims of crime is vital. Without it, victims may feel isolated and come to believe that their case is being neglected or not taken seriously. This makes them less likely to report crime in the future and ultimately undermines public confidence in the wider justice system.”

Resolution, the association of family lawyers, has expressed disappointment at the selective reporting of the comments of the President of the Family Division Sir James Munby, concerning the funding of care cases. In the Mail Online, for instance, those views were reported under the headline ‘Too much is being spent on child cases, says top family judge.’ A spokesperson for Resolution said: “What the President actually said was the tandem model – which rightly requires that children in care cases be represented by both a guardian and a solicitor – sometimes does necessitate wider legal support. He also said of any reformed model of representation that ‘none of this can be allowed to prejudice the fundamentals of the tandem model.’ … Whilst we all agree that taxpayers’ money should be carefully spent, the fact that government chose to exclude care cases from the most recent legal aid cuts demonstrates just how crucial it is to invest in ensuring the right outcomes for children in these cases, that their voices are heard, and that their safety is paramount. Without legal representation, these goals are virtually impossible to achieve. We are always happy to discuss how limited public funds can be best deployed to ensure children in care cases have access to justice. But cheap shots at lawyers, and selective reporting of statements from senior judges, is not the right way to have this debate.”

The Supreme Court has refused permission to appeal the judgment of the Court of Appeal in a case concerning the participation of a child in proceedings. In F (Children) the mother and eldest child appealed against an order that she and her two siblings should be returned to Hungary, upon their father’s application under the Hague Convention. Dismissing the appeal, Sir James Munby considered the question of whether the child was given a proper opportunity to participate in the proceedings at first instance, but decided that nothing ultimately turned on this. Refusing permission to appeal against that decision, the Supreme Court stated: “We entirely understand the applicant’s frustration that she did not have an opportunity to put her views in person to the trial judge but she was able to play a full part in the Court of Appeal proceedings and was refused permission to appeal against the refusal of party status, so it is difficult for this Court to see what we could do for her if we did hear her appeal.”

And finally, the charity Women’s Aid has warned that the government’s housing benefit cap may force 67% of women’s refuges to close. The cap will limit housing benefit in the social sector to the same levels paid to private landlords. Because of the cost of the special services they provide refuges can charge as much as £300 for a room for a week, but the cap would reduce that to just £60 per week. The government has deferred the reform until 2018 while it conducts a review of the measure, but the uncertainty surrounding the issue is already affecting providers. Commenting on the matter Polly Neate, the chief executive of Women’s Aid, said: “Refuges provide specialist support to help women and their children truly recover from domestic abuse, and rebuild their lives with a view to long-term independence. These women and children have been through enough, and they deserve better than services which are continually on the brink of closure.”